Sight Unseen

Friends: Robert Royal returns home from Rome today but has filed another report on the Amazon Synod. He is joined this time by Eduardo Echeverria. Together, they reflect on miscommunication by the Vatican’s Dicastery of Communications — about those “pagan” symbols and the misrepresentation of St. John Henry Newman’s views about evangelizing pagan people. Read “Two on the Synod” by clicking here.

In a previous column, I mentioned one of my understandings about the angels. It was that they do most things anonymously.

You don’t have to thank them. This is one of the advantages angels have, generally, over us mortals down here. They don’t have to receive thanks, which, as many humans could tell you, can be cloying.

For this kind of thanksgiving (and there are many kinds, some very good) is transactional. I know this from personal experience.

One wants something. One gets it. One thanks the agent who provided the goods. And if he doesn’t the next time, one gets in a snit.

The “guvmint,” which often poses as an angel, likes to offer free money. This makes the people who are receiving it very grateful, at first. But soon it’s all spent and they want more.

Worse, the guvmint tries to take some back, because it can’t afford to give away so much; and the former recipients go berserk. They have “rights,” &c. The dispensing authority now gets abuse instead of gratitude.

A real angel would know better than to get into this trap.

That is why, for instance, I never ask an angel to help me win the Lottery. Indeed, I go one step further, and do not play the Lottery at all.

I only pray for those who win: that perhaps the angels could help save the winners from themselves, for the receipt of “free money” is, even without a crime, among the most destructive and corrupting things that can happen to a person.

Only a devil could wish winning on you. And only he will be rubbing his hands with glee when you win. For, even if you give it all away, you are spreading the corruption of “free,” unearned wealth. (I have watched it destroy several of my friends.)

I say this to make a point little understood today. Our focus is on the “transaction,” the tit-for-tat. We are deal-makers, with each other, with angels, ultimately with God.

This has nothing to do with Capitalism, incidentally: for it applies with greater force in a Socialist economy, where that guvmint plays God.


We want instinctively to balance the ledger, at first. Then we want to play tricks with the accounting; to get more for less. This is another, baser instinct: to get stuff cheap. At best, take something in return for saying “thank you”; and then, we can eliminate the thanks. Finally, just riot if the free stuff doesn’t arrive promptly.

Bereft of real gratitude – which cannot be noisily expressed – even our thanks become transactional. We are locked in the trap of praise and blame. The emphasis soon turns from the former to the latter.

Good angels (I will not speak for bad angels) are loath to play at this. That is why they spread gifts and good luck anonymously, or so I reason. They are in service to a God who is Himself non-transactional, and cannot be dragged down to lowly tit-for-tat, hard as we may try to lure Him.

And angels do not like limitations put on themselves. As Chesterton said, they can fly, because they take themselves lightly.

I was impressed, when a child, by the scene on the streets of Bangkok, in the days when it had plentiful canals and no skyscrapers.

At dawn saffron-wrapped, barefoot monks would wander like ghosts along the streets and laneways. They carried begging bowls, and were trained to look dead ahead, expressionlessly to the horizon.

In “the land of smiles,” as the tourist brochures called it, the novices had been taught not to smile, not to notice who put the packets of rice and other food in their bowls (often the best they had). It was (usually) the lady of the house, who bowed the deep “wai” in gratitude, upon parting with her gift.

From the monk, no “thank you,” no gesture of receipt, no acknowledgment at all. For a Westerner, it was puzzling.

When in adolescence I became a tyro of “comparative religion,” I realized, that while the form of the custom was distinctly Siamese and Theravada Buddhist, it was in principle universal.

Could we in our time machine retrieve a monk from our own Middle Ages, he would understand that custom much quicker than how to drive a motor scooter. He would, without thinking, understand the anonymity of gestures, and acts.

He might want to learn which order these monks belonged to. He might visit a Thai temple to find out, were his curiosity powerful enough. He would be offered a visitor’s cell, perhaps the one I once stayed in. His hosts in the temple would be curious about him.

Well, I feel a Hermann Hesse novel coming on. I will drop this line of speculation, having only, I hope, made some modest advance on the idea of anonymity – as a universal quality in the pursuit of goodness, and in service to what is higher than ourselves.

Today, of course, it is difficult for anyone to acknowledge something higher; something beyond transaction and the Lex Mercatoria; something that transcends the rules that apply, by common consent, in the welter of our everyday lives. Something beyond etiquette.

We want, as it were, receipts for our payments. I do not mean the mere tax receipts, for charitable donations, or the sales slip we might expect in return for any purchase. We even want credit for humility.

One cannot credit the account of an anonymous person, though I’m sure we have computer experts working on how to do that. All I can say is that you will need cash or kind; and prayers to that Lord who sees in secret.

In this age of Facebook, Instagram, and Likes; of constant invasion by the surveillance state and surveillance Google, the “concept” of anonymity becomes hard to comprehend. I think it is part of the difficulty of religious comprehension.


*Image: The Guardian Angel by Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1630 [Museum of Fine Arts Houston, TX]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: